Debate Magazine

Getting Caught up with Semantics

By Carnun @Carnunmp


I thought it only fitting that one of the earlier posts to this blog try to deal with probably the most annoying argument those pertaining to a rationalist nature encounter – arguments, essentially, over the meanings of words.

Again, I thought it was only fitting for a clear-cut definition of the very word ‘semantics’, so here’s Cambridge Dictionaries Online‘s account:the study of meanings in a language. No misunderstandings there? Good.

I hope to touch upon what I think makes a rational argument, and why squabbles over semantics are the polar opposites to reasonable point-making endeavours. But know this: I cannot possibly cover everything I would like to say in a single blog post, so there may very well be revisits to the subject (which I look forward to)…


So, the backbone of a rationalist argument, for me, should be clear-cut, concise and logical. This can of course be embellished upon by more varied (and emotive) language purely as a tool of persuasion or simple idiosyncratic love of colourful expression. Therefore the opposite of a rationalist standpoint, in my view, is one which focusses on the poetic language before caring to construct a scientific backbone. It is one which concentrates so greatly on sounding profound before it sounds realistic; one which invokes very personal definitions of words and concepts. One like ‘science can give us facts, but it cannot give us values’. Nonsense.

Here’s an example of what I mean in the world of debating: When, say, Evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig argues that ‘Good is from God’ in a debate with Neuroscientist and Philosopher Sam Harris, his persuasive logic is based solely on his very personal understanding of the definition of  ‘God’ as being  ‘perfectly good’, and he is not employing a rational argument. All of the logic is based on individual meaning of the language used – a relativistic standpoint, different for all and therefore not rationally valid. Yes, the man is a good speaker, a good storyteller, but persuasive technique says nothing for validity of argument.

For Craig’s argument to be ‘rationally valid’ it would need to base its deduction upon a solid foundation of universal fact. To do this, it must start with a ‘truth’. In Harris’ case he highlights where he thinks morality can be truly scientifically derived – looking at the physical nature of well-being and the fact of consciousness – and then goes on, with this scientific basis of what we know to be true, to come to the logical conclusion that science can indeed provide a sound basis for morality. It can ‘tell us what to value’ after all.

This example obviously crosses over into other topics, but the essence of what I want to say on the theme of semantics is evident in it. On the one side you have a rational argument, based upon universal scientific definitions without room for confusion; and on the other side you find relative interpretations of language and personal belief, clinging on to the assumption that ‘God’ is defined as again ‘perfectly good’ which, it’s fair to say, is an argument from wordplay.

A lot of the debate confusion those like-minded to Craig exhibit appears because of simple misunderstandings of supposedly mutual definitions of language (which the misunderstandee is ignorant of), and as a result the wrong questions are asked in conversations and debates. Semantic questions waste a lot of time, and should always be dismissed in logical discussion.

And when I say ‘dismissed’ I of course mean dealt with, not ignored.

If someone asks “what is the purpose of life?”, for example, a rationalist would (or should) say: “There does not seem to be any true purpose. ‘Purpose’, a purely human concept, implies predefined reason, but life has no goals. From a physics point of view ‘life’ is but a product of the laws of nature, and although we like to ponder on the contrary idea that it has any meaning, ‘life’ exists with no greater significance than non-life – all is matter, simply arranged in different ways. If that does not satisfy you, and even a little ‘purpose’ is what you crave, then a Darwinian look at the problem will tell you that life’s only goal – that is, each individual life’s only goal – is reproduction, and the passing on of genes in an organism’s DNA…”

It’s likely that they’ll refuse to accept the rational answer if they don’t like it – which, by the way, is also rather likely. This is because so many people apply meaning, purpose and importance to non-human phenomena, forgetting that each of those concepts can only apply to us. They are again purely human in origin, after all.

This kind of thinking leads many people down intellectual traps, and if the questions asked in relation to definitions of language are not relevant they will never find answers which scientifically mean anything. So much of our thinking is confined by the limits we set unintentionally within our own use of language, and many forget that poetry does not equal truth.

Sounding profound is no reason for a claim to have any profundity.



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